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Brand Anew

Originator of Houston's brings a new corporate concept to SouthPark

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Restaurants are susceptible to fashion. One trend that has been building to a crescendo since the mid 1990s is the upscale-casual corporate restaurant serving all-American cuisine.

Although Charlotte doesn't have an outcropping of the Caliornia-based Hillstone Restaurant Group, which owns such brands as Houston's and Café R&D, former managers from this business group have come to Charlotte to open local chains like Harper's and 131 Main with their own takes on this style of dining.

Another such "upscale-casual" enterprise is the 252-seat BrickTop's in SouthPark which opened in May 2007. BrickTop's is a Westend Restaurant, owned by Tom Brunnberg and Joe Ledbetter, one of the original owners of the first Houston's in Nashville, Tenn. In fact, the BrickTop's in Nashville is located on the spot of that now-closed original Houston's.

The eponymous name comes from American entrepreneur Ada "Bricktop" Smith (1894-1984) who owned "Chez Bricktop," renowned jazz clubs in Paris, Rome, and Mexico City from the 1920's through the 1960's. BrickTop's General Manager Tony Grippo noted Chez Bricktop was a social center of Paris, "with the same hospitality of a Cheers" -- a neighborhood-friendly concept they wanted to recreate. BrickTop's opened their first shop in Naples, Fla., in 2006 and now have four stores in the Southeast.

Extreme renovation has converted this SouthPark site into a one floor dining room with open kitchen. Immediately inside BrickTop's is a waiting area, featuring framed monkey posters -- perhaps a little too kitchy. While most of the interior is somewhat unremarkable -- dark wood and chandeliers resembling a congregation of UFOs -- what does standout are the large comfortable, family-friendly booths with mounted light fixtures reminiscent of a Route 22 Jersey diner.

Catching the essence of Aught Americana, BrickTop's menu conveys the sense that you've had it before and liked it. Appetizers include shrimp cocktail and the ubiquitous spinach and artichoke dip. Entrees feature a fried gulf shrimp basket and grilled ribeyes. Sandwiches? You guessed it: burgers, grilled chicken, and "deluxe" chicken tenders. It is obvious from this menu that BrickTop's is not a chef-driven restaurant, nor does it intend to be. The chef here is Andrew Martinez and recipes come straight from headquarters although, according to Grippo, local outposts develop the specials.

The dishes foster sharing since the portions are gargantuan. What is best at BrickTop's are the fallen-off-the-bone barbecue ribs that, admittedly, lack a true taste of place. These are certainly not like the ribs in Memphis, but rather offer that sweet sauce America has come to call barbecue sauce. Also well-produced is the rotisserie chicken: one half of a fat and juicy locally raised (OK maybe Winston isn't part of Charlotte ... yet) Ashley Farms chicken. Paired with mashed new potatoes, this entrée is an incentive for a return visit. For something lighter, the blue cheese wedge (not a true wedge shape since Boston Bibb is the green) is punctuated with bright bursts from bits of bacon and onion. Soups are also comforting with succulent chunks of lobster lazing in one flavorful bisque.

Unappealing were the flat breads. These flat breads seem to be loosely inspired by pale and thin Tostitos frozen pizza crust, lacking in any familiar blistery char of a wood-burning oven and further undistinguished by the choice of toppings. While the smoked salmon with dill, capers, and red onion worked as an agreeable team, the barbecue chicken with jack cheese, cilantro, and peanuts just didn't work.

Desserts at BrickTop's mean sugar overload. Children's eyes light up when the banana split arrives, but just try finishing it. The Key lime pie also hits all the right notes.

BrickTop's is not shy about pricing: the crab cakes entrée is $26. Sandwiches range from $9 for a cheeseburger to $16 for the French dip prime rib, salads are $8 for the house to $14 for the Palm Beach with crab, shrimp, avocado and egg. Entrees are $14 to $26 for the filet mignon. A children's menu is available.

BrickTop's does not try to be all things to all people which is not surprising given its business pedigree. This restaurant group seems to have rebuffed the current chef-driven restaurant philosophy of giving the people what they should want -- which does not translate into successful business model in all markets. This is especially true in Charlotte with the influx of relocated suburbanites and also a relocated older population. In uncertain economic times, people find comfort in the familiar. That's the concept BrickTop's is banking on.

Correction:

In the story on Intermezzo (November 14, 2007) I wrote its location was on the cusp of Plaza Midwood. In fact, the restaurant is within the Belmont community, a neighboring area to Plaza Midwood which begins at Central Avenue and Hawthorne.

Signage would probably help to distinguish those neighborhoods.

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